The sixties. A memory. I was a young girl flipping through the pages of Life Magazine when my attention was gripped by a stark black and white image. I didn't know what the article was about but the photograph was unforgettable; a group of white men standing around a hogtied black man smoldering in a fire pit, his skin melting in the heat, his face pained and lifeless. The white men were all laughing, one pointing a figure at his tortured victim, a sneer etched across his face. Horror crashed over me and I burst into tears, pleading with my mother to explain why these men were doing this. She did her Christian best to make sense of the racial hate stirred up by the nascent civil rights movement and though I wept my little girl tears still confused and overwhelmed by what I saw, I was fully aware that this was a snapshot of cold inhumanity at its worst.
Racism. Hateful. Obvious. Unequivocal.
The eighties. Entrenched in youth and music. I was surrounded by creativity, love and a bevy of wild rocker boys who played in my band and made life a whirlwind of excitement and hope. One I lived with for six years; a phenomenal drummer, an amazing singer/songwriter, a flawed but deeply caring person and...a black man. It was Los Angeles, the Rampart police scandal had yet to be thwarted, and though I'd been blessed by open-minded parents who taught me to judge on soul not skin, I had a naiveté about racial issues that was to be severely disabused in the six years I lived with a black man in Los Angeles in the eighties.
Stopped by the police more times than I'd ever been before or since, we were harassed on such a regular basis I would actually shake when I saw a police car anywhere near. "Whose drums are those? Did you steal them? Where are you going/coming from? Is this your car? Why are you out so late? A couple that looked like you two robbed a store. Is there a pipe in your glove box?" (That one got me: Not ever having done drugs, I seriously thought he meant a sink pipe of some kind and wondered why on earth he thought I'd have one of those in my glove box!).
It was relentless. When we moved into our Hollywood apartment he was even stopped while carrying our TV up the stairs, landing him (and the damn TV) on the ground in full spread-eagle mode. The local law enforcement was dissuaded only after our very feisty neighbor came out and raised a ruckus. But most devastating was his being accused of rape and peeking, arrested outside the restaurant where I worked at the time, fingered by a stranger neither of us had ever seen before. When I came out with my waitress tray in hand to find him bleeding and handcuffed, begging me to help as a literal horde of cops dragged him to a car, my own panicked protests got me arrested as well. On the way to the station, handcuffed and terrified, I was shaken to my core as the cops battered me with invectives, the most offensive being, "What's a pretty girl like you doing with an ugly nigger like that?" After two hours cuffed to a bench, I was finally released without charge when a cop I waited on regularly intervened. My boyfriend, however, had the crap beat out of him by an officer who claimed he "worked out every day to be able kick the ass of guys like you." Bailed out by our manager the next morning, he first went to the emergency room for broken ribs, a sprained wrist, cuts and bruises, and later that night we played the biggest gig of our careers at The Palace in Hollywood opening for The Ministry, me singing my broken heart out and him wincing with every beat.
When that case went to trial the police admitted the finger prints they had weren't his, the witness who said he "looked like the guy" never even showed up, and despite my vehemence, he still pleaded no contest because he was so terrified they'd put him in prison anyway. Whatever I thought was happening in America regarding race, it was then that I personally felt the cold hard truth of this man's life, living in a country that would misjudge him so blindly and callously for the darkness of his skin. When one of my very white friends later said, "He needs to get over his black thing" and another asked if I was with him because I had low self-esteem, I knew that in the many years since I'd seen that horrifying image in Life Magazine not nearly enough had changed.
We're now in the 21st century. Racism seems somewhat under control. Sure, there remain white supremacists, Nazis, the Aryan Nation and the ever-present lunatic fringe who will always hate despite cultural evolution and changing mores, but in the world-at-large we seem to have become more civilized. Good neighborhoods are integrated, interracial dating is accepted, mixed race families are commonplace, black jokes are unacceptable in white society (at least in public), the black middle-class is strong and growing, and younger generations embrace a worldview that is inclusive and color-blind. Hallelujah, it's a new day.
Then we go and get ourselves a black president.
And like the lid on the Pandora's box being ripped opened, this stunning audacity has released the sleeping demon of our latent, squashed down, politically incorrect but ever so roiling fever of racism, worming its way into the language of some very uncivil discourse. And America not only won't admit it, but can't seem to figure out what to do about it.
There is a phase in human development when a child insists his parents stay forever the way he perceives them now, protesting even the slightest variation on the theme. A different hairstyle, a new pair of shoes, even alternative glasses can send a toddler into spasms of fear, certain those minor changes portend the shattering of his comfortable security. He'll demand that "Daddy take off those shoes!" as he drags the old ones back out from the closet. Change as anathema.
In the contemporary vision of America, it seems something similar is at work. Consciously or otherwise, many of our fellow countrymen hold a very fixed notion of what the "real America" is, what a true American president should be. They figure a perfectly good precedent was set at the start: the Founding Fathers and our subsequent presidents were all white Protestant men and white folk ran the country. Despite the fact that many aspects of those men and those times, particularly on the issue of slavery, demanded cultural and moral adjustment, this contingent refuses to accept that anything outside this original paradigm of "white and Protestant" will ever be as American.
Many will argue the theory but tell me, when did we last elect a Jewish President? A Mormon one (try though Romney might)? Hispanic? Asian? Female (we're trying!)? Don't even get started on Muslim. Even when we elected the very Catholic John Kennedy, the topic of his unconventional religion was front, center and fractious. Black with a Muslim name? Dear God.
Certainly every president has engendered vitriol from those who don't agree with him, race and religion notwithstanding. The Right is quick to point out how battered the Left left George Bush and he was nothing if not white and Protestant! But let's be honest; it's not the anger and disapproval itself that's the problem here, it's the language of the anger. All this chatter about birth certificates and Kenya and socialism and elitism and the "real America" may be positioned as valid arguments, but more honestly they're the coded messages of racial animosity.
No one wants to admit it, certainly not the people spewing those coded messages. There will be caterwauling in the comments, lists cited of what Obama has done wrong to validly foment anger and hate. Statements about budgets and small government and preserving our future are designed to ignore the deeper message. People whose best friends are black and who everyone knows are not racist will deny their vitriol has anything whatsoever to do with skin color or Kenyan ancestry or that damned name of his.
When Marilyn Davenport of the Orange County California Republican Committee sends out an email depicting Obama as a chimp baby with the line "Now you know why -- no birth certificate," that's not racism.
When Obama visits a college campus in Kentucky and hateful posters with racial slurs are put up, that's not racism.
When comments after news articles about that same story are filled with seething old-school bigotry like "Monkey Obama" and "go back to Africa," no, that's not racism.
When Mike Huckabee repetitively and erroneously states that the president grew up in Kenya which informs his views on a Mau Mau uprising, that's not racism.
When a birth certificate has been shown, the Hawaiian government has verified, the man himself has confirmed, but certain people (including a pompous NY businessman) still insist, over and over, that he's an obfuscating and illegitimate president despite those confirmations, that's not racism.
When Tea Party folk commandeer even their children to hold up placards depicting President Obama lynched from a tree or dressed in African warrior garb, no, certainly, that's not racism!
But it is. Racism, in all its hateful, sneering, un-Christian and very misappropriated sense of superiority.
Dislike the man. Disagree with his politics. Vote against his agenda. Write blogs and articles criticizing him. Scream about him on the radio. Rant, rally and rave. Do whatever your political passion dictates. But please be clear about what you're doing. Dig a little deeper if you have the conscience. If nothing else, at least have the dubious integrity of calling it what it is. Don't send out that chimp email or talk about Mau Maus and then say, "Everyone who knows me knows I'm not a racist."
We're at a crossroads here. We can continue to pretend, hide behind politics, religion and social facade, but given that we have a black president for at least another nineteen months and the racial composition of our country is only going to get less and less white-dominant, this seems be one of those "learning moments." Like the toddler who ultimately must accept his parent's new shoes, we too must evolve beyond that first limited imprint of America to one that is current with our times. One that embraces our past but understands that our survival as a nation depends on our ability to evolve and learn.
I have no delusions. There are those who will grasp to their dying day the mandate of white superiority and every other kind of intolerance they can muster. This article isn't for them. It's for those who can change, who can get past their fear and knee-jerk responses. It's for those who already speak the language of humanity, empathy, civility and inclusion. To those I say: PLEASE SPEAK UP. Speak loudly against the language of racism. Leave comments, write letters, start a blog, volunteer, make your voice heard above the gnashing of teeth on the other side. It's important.
I just hope I said it loud enough.
Follow Lorraine Devon Wilke on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@LorraineDWilke